ASU public affairs school chief draws on lessons learned watching Detroit’s meltdown

Anne Shearer//October 20, 2014

ASU public affairs school chief draws on lessons learned watching Detroit’s meltdown

Anne Shearer//October 20, 2014

Karen Mossberger is director of the Arizona State University School of Public Affairs.
Karen Mossberger is director of the Arizona State University School of Public Affairs.

After witnessing the city of Detroit devolve into a shell of its former self working in a clerical job there, Karen Mossberger was motivated to combat the city’s decline. To help accomplish her goal, she earned a college degree. However, after working in the Motor City, her drive intensified to understand and address on a larger scale the issues plaguing Detroit.

“I saw all of the challenges in Detroit — the poverty, the disinvestment, the decline in the city and I thought, how can I make a difference? How can I do something that’s meaningful?” she says.

To affect change, however, she had to graduate from college. She earned her undergraduate degree in political science from Wayne State University; the first in her family to earn a college degree. And her efforts paid off as she became a senior policy planner for Detroit. Even with that accomplishment, she still wanted to do more.

“While it was great having that experience in Detroit, I felt that there were a lot of things that I could contribute to,” Mossberger says. “Being in academia has meant being able to do research on some of the issues that I saw us confront in Detroit and looking for ways to do things better.”

After teaching at several universities, Mossberger brought her combination of real world experience and academia to Arizona State University as the director of the school of public affairs in September of last year.

Mossberger sees Phoenix as a great place to teach students about city management because the city is the largest in the county that is run by a city manager. “It’s been exciting to be in a place that’s growing and building, and to be at a university that has such a commitment to the communities throughout the Valley,” she says.

She adds that Arizona as a whole is an attractive place to teach public policy because people here are open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

“Sometimes in other places it’s very hard to bring about change,” she says. “This is a place that’s not so set in its way. It’s a place where you can try new things.”

Crossing the digital divide
A grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation enabled her to research the “digital divide” between people of different ages. The study marked an important moment in her career because it enabled her to take research on how individuals use information technology and apply it to larger communities in a national survey on information technology and its impact on civic engagement.

“It just opened up a whole new world for me in terms of public policy, and ways that I can connect and collaborate with people,” she says.

Mossberger views technology as a key to getting younger people civically engaged and participating in government.

“Overall, young people are generally less likely to vote, less likely to engage in a lot of traditional forms of civic engagement or political participation, but they’re more likely to be engaged civically online,” she says.

Online petitions and discussions on social media about politics and current events, which Mossberger says require “low intensity” participation, serve as a gateway for young people to become more informed and motivated. Encouraging informed participation is her goal.

“If we’re asking citizens to participate, it’s important to have the information available so that when people do participate, they can be informed and hold government accountable,” she says.

Mossberger says women and minorities are underrepresented in the public policy and information technology fields, but they are not absent. She adds that women should not only be adequately represented, but that these fields should be more “broadly inclusive” in general.

“Women are not looked at as the innovators in my field with inclusion technology, but that’s really not true,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of women doing great work in the social sciences and in public policy.”

As director of ASU’s public affairs school, she says she has a great pool of students to craft into the civic leaders of tomorrow.

“They have these ties to their communities and so they can leave here and go make a difference,” she says. “We’re training people who will make government better, who will make contributions in the communities, and who are really dedicated.”